It was not the musicians from the Hindi-speaking region but Kumar Gandharva, a vocalist from Karnataka, who re-discovered Kabir and presented him to the world with great effect

Last week, I had a chance to watch two video recordings in which Hindi poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi was interviewed on Kabir and Kumar Gandharva. The occasion was Vajpeyi’s 73rd birthday celebration, at New Delhi’s India International Centre. It struck me then that Kumar Gandharva’s birth anniversary is fast approaching us. Had he lived, he would have been 90 this April 8. I also became aware of the fact that he was perhaps the only classical vocalist who had forged such a strong bond with Hindi writers and literature. While most vocalists sang bhajans of Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera and Kabir, it was he who elevated bhajan singing to the status of a veritable new musical genre. Nobody has ever sung Kabir the way Kumar Gandharva did. To his admirers, he was Kabir personified. It is also a comment on musicians from the Hindi region that it was not they but a vocalist from Karnataka who re-discovered Kabir and presented him to the world with great effect. Perhaps he was not re-discovering Kabir but discovering himself in Kabir, that ultimate rebel who questioned and tested every social, religious and spiritual norm and belief, and charted his own independent path. Just as Kumar Gandharva did.

In the Hindi belt, literature and music experienced a hiatus only in the latter half of the last century although music continued to be used as a prop or a literary device by many writers. One cannot help remembering the long and terrific poem “Asadhya Veena” by Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’ in this context. But the real, living relationship between a poet and music can only be seen in the poems and lyrics of the great Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ whose long poem ‘Ram ki Shaktipuja’ reminds me of the complicated layakari of the Gwalior masters of yore. Bharatendu Harishchandra, who is widely regarded as the father of the modern Khadi Boli Hindi prose, was himself adept in the art of music and even penned an essay on this art form. If one goes back to the Bhakti poets, one would find that each pada of Surdas has a raga assigned to it by the poet himself to indicate that the pada must be sung in that particular raga. Surdas and Meerabai were such accomplished musicians that they created Surdasi Malhar and Meerabai ki Malhar respectively and these ragas are sung even to this day. Even before them, Amir Khusrau, the first poet of Khadi Boli Hindi, composed many bandishes in Poorvi as this raga was a special favourite of his guru Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. Khusrau also created many new literary as well as musical genres.

Kumar Gandharva had inherited the tradition of bhajan singing from the Vishnu Digambar Paluskar tradition as his guru B.R. Deodhar was a direct disciple of Paluskar. But as many poets wrote on musical themes using them as props, so did many vocalists who treated bhajans as pegs to hang their gayaki on. But Kumar would have none of it. He paid enormous attention to the literary content and moulded it in accordance with the needs of his own art. He aimed at presenting the essence of a saint poet, not singing one or two of his or her bhajans. He was the only Hindustani classical vocalist who presented independent programmes on Tulsidas and Surdas and also presented another programme to present excerpts from Tulsidas, Surdas and Meerabai calling it ‘Triveni’. When he sang nirgun bhajans, he took the listeners along in his quest for the divine sound that can only be heard in a state of complete void.

Kumar Gandharva and Mallikarjun Mansur were the two musicians who were, and still are, extremely popular among Hindi writers. It’s a curious fact that Hindi writers were never unduly enamoured of Ravi Shankar, the greatest icon of Indian classical music. I am clueless as to why it was so. Perhaps they could identify themselves more with the disarming humility and earthiness of Mansur and the charming Kabir-like rebelliousness of Kumar. Or, perhaps, with the emotional intensity in Mansur’s singing and the cerebral quality of Kumar Gandharva’s music.